Portal has to be one of the most unique PC games ever created, and rarely has what is essentially a puzzle game caused such a buzz of excitement. The gaming world first became aware of it as part of “The Orange Box”, a brilliant five-game package released by EA to showcase the best of Valve’s past and present hits – namely, Half-Life 2 and its two follow-up episodes, as well as the multiplayer first-person online shooter Team Fortress 2.
All of these titles are accessed via the Steam site where individual games (including Portal) can be bought separately. What was immensely clever of Valve was to set its puzzle game firmly within the Half-Life universe so that it looks and feels like a parallel adventure.
Like most good brain-teasers, the basic concept is simplicity itself. You play a woman called Chell who wakes up in a room within the mysterious Aperture Science research centre. You’re then informed by a sentient, female-voiced computer known as GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) that you will have to perform a number of tests which, if completed correctly, will result in you being rewarded with… cake.
This is the first indication that not all is as straightforward as it might appear. GLaDOS provides you with an ‘Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device’ (or portal gun for short) which enables you at any time to open up to two openings in flat surfaces You can then move towards your goal (a room exit protected by a partial force field) by entering one portal and leaving another.
Extra techniques will be learnt such as ‘flinging’ which is where you can use the momentum by, for instance, dropping through a portal far below you to then exit at the same velocity through a portal facing ahead or even up. It takes a while to get the hang of the almost Escher-like 3D insanity of the room designs and portal operation, but once it clicks it quickly becomes addictive.
As well as moving around rooms, you can pick up objects with the portal gun (very like the gravity gun in Half-Life 2) such as large cubes and then drop them on large buttons, and destroy gun turrets by dropping crates on them via a portal above. The further you progress, the more complex the challenges become and the more unhinged and malevolent GLaDOS becomes. By the end you realise who the true enemy is.
Portal is fun, testing, dark, wickedly humorous and utterly compelling. It’s hard to believe that you’re playing a first-person shooter without any weapons, a puzzle without any logic and an adventure without any answers and yet having the time of your life! Also, when you finish the game you’re rewarded with the most hilarious song ever created.